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University of Michigan lawyers told the Faculty Senate Office that the faculty governance body cannot hold its official meetings remotely, according to an email sent to members Wednesday afternoon from Colleen Conway, the Senate’s chair. Conway’s email, obtained by The Daily, comes two weeks before University of Michigan faculty will hold a remote vote of no confidence in University administration over leadership’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conway, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, sent the email to remind members of the upcoming Sept. 16 meeting. She told them she was contacted by the Office of the General Counsel, the University’s legal team, though she did not specify when these conversations occurred.
“I also wish to make you aware that the Faculty Senate Office received an opinion from the Office of General Counsel that the Faculty Senate does not have the authority under the University Senate rules to hold remote meetings,” Conway wrote.
Conway did not reply immediately to request for comment.
However, in an email to The Daily, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote that the Office of General Counsel told the Faculty Senate Office there would be “little risk in proceeding with remote meetings,” indicating that their virtual meetings and motions would likely not be legally challenged.
Fitzgerald wrote that the advice of the general counsel was unrelated to the scheduled vote of no confidence. According to Fitzgerald, the Faculty Senate has been aware since April that their bylaws did not allow for official meetings to be conducted remotely.
“The Faculty Senate office initially reached out to the General Counsel’s office in April, asking if the Faculty Senate bylaws allowed for remote meetings,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The advice at that time was no, but that the Faculty Senate could change its bylaws to allow for such meetings. The Faculty Senate office again reached out to the General Counsel's office Sept. 1 to reconfirm […] the original guidance provided in April.”
When asked for the April and September communications between the Office of General Counsel and the Faculty Senate, Fitzgerald said they were “not my emails to share.”
Fitzgerald said bylaws can only be changed through an in-person meeting, describing a catch-22 under current COVID-19 restrictions.
“That can be changed, but a change in bylaws to allow remote meetings, must be made during an in-person meeting,” Fitzgerald wrote. “That’s not possible just yet because of a governor’s executive order that restricts the size of meetings. Faculty Senate’s bylaws require a quorum of 100 members.”
Because the meeting is unofficial, the vote of no confidence scheduled for Sept. 16 “will not constitute an official action of the University Senate,” Conway wrote. The meeting will still take place to give the Faculty Senate a chance to “serve in an advisory capacity” for the University’s administration, according to Conway.
“While this meeting will not be a duly constituted meeting pursuant to University Senate Rules, we will still provide an opportunity for Faculty Senate members to express their opinions and concerns, including the ability to vote on motions,” Conway wrote.
Voting on the unofficial vote of no confidence will be open for 24 hours after the meeting, Conway wrote.
The Faculty Senate rules do not mention remote meetings. Special meetings can be held if more than 50 members petition for one.
Silke-Maria Weineck, a German studies professor at the University, said that requiring an in-person meeting to allow for official remote meetings is “an abolition of democratic procedure.”
“You are not allowed to meet in person, hence you cannot function as faculty governance. That would be the abolition of faculty governance under the cover of pandemic,” Weineck said.
A July 17 executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allows for remote public meetings and administrative hearings until the state of emergency is lifted. Under the executive order, which was extended through Sept. 4, all public bodies can use phone or video conferencing methods to conduct meetings “so long as they follow certain procedures to ensure meaningful access and participation by members of the public body and the general public.”
However, according to Fitzgerald, the Faculty Senate is not considered a public body under state law.
The Faculty Senate and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, two faculty governance bodies at the University, have been meeting virtually since the onset of the pandemic in March. The Faculty Senate most recently met remotely on Aug. 28 — the first time a special meeting was called by a petition of faculty members since 2011.
The Aug. 28 meeting came on the heels of a leaked memo from the President’s Advisory COVID-19 Committee on Ethics and Privacy. This memo warned against reopening, cautioning that the University’s plan would disproportionately harm vulnerable populations.
Last week’s emergency Faculty Senate meeting saw record turnout, with many of the 550 attendees expressing concerns about the University’s reopening plan and the fall semester. At this meeting, the group discussed holding a vote of no confidence, which if successful would mean the Faculty Senate no longer believes in the University administration’s ability to lead.
Even if the Sept. 16 meeting were held in official capacity, the vote of no confidence would be a largely symbolic gesture. However, multiple University community members took to social media to express suspicions about the timing of Conway’s email, saying that an unofficial motion takes away from the legitimacy of the vote.
Information Professor Kentaro Toyama, a representative of SACUA, said he does not believe the statement from the Office of General Counsel carries much weight given the nature of the vote and the faculty’s lack of control over administrative decision-making.
“On the other hand, for the motions that are being put forth, the reality is faculty have no hard administrative power at the University, so they’re all symbolic votes anyway,” Toyama said. “And so, to the extent that that’s true, I don’t think it matters whether our votes are formally recognized or not. They carry the moral weight of whatever the vote turns out to be.”
Even so, Toyama said the general counsel’s statement could be seen as a sign of the University’s fear over the outcome of the vote.
“I interpret it as the administration beginning to be a little bit concerned that faculty are now expressing things in a way that they might not like,” Toyama said. “They’ve ignored us all summer and basically dismissed formally lodged complaints and issues that we’ve raised to them through all the formal channels that we had. And so this is one of the few, last options we have to be heard.”
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